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Review: A self-help-fueled vampire movie, ‘Renfield’ is goofy, if flimsy, fun

Two men sit in dim lighting in the movie "Renfield."
Nicolas Cage, left, and Nicholas Hoult in the movie “Renfield.”
(Michele K. Short / Universal Pictures)
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With the horror-action-comedy “Renfield,” the iconic Nicolas Cage finally grants the world his take on Count Dracula and instantly lands in the tier of Best Dracula Performances of All Time, creating a holy trifecta with Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. His version of the famous vampire is seductive and self-important, naturally, and he delivers it with the heavy dose of sarcasm required for this comedic modern analysis of Dracula’s dynamic with his “familiar”: Robert Montague Renfield (Nicholas Hoult).

The best horror movies know that the monsters therein are metaphors, and “Renfield,” written by Ryan Ridley with a story by Robert Kirkman, who created the zombie epic “The Walking Dead,” extrapolates the Dracula/Renfield relationship into a contemporary parable of codependency and narcissist abuse. Renfield isn’t just a loyal servant and enabler dragging unsuspecting human prey to their demise in Dracula’s lair but another victim too, his life force sucked dry not via fang but rather coercion, manipulation and gaslighting.

The pair have made Dracula’s latest roost in an abandoned New Orleans hospital, and after decades of service, Renfield has sought out a support group for people in toxic relationships. He makes a breakthrough with group leader Mark (Brandon Scott Jones), realizing that if he doesn’t prioritize his boss’ needs, Dracula won’t grow to his fullest power. The joke is that he’s talking about a literal monster, a supernatural being that can fly and burst into clouds of bats, not just some rotten boyfriend. But at the heart of the matter, the issue is the same.

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“What if Renfield described Dracula in therapy?” is a good joke, exploited in the trailers, but this is unfortunately a one-joke movie. Directed by Chris McKay, the film feels like a comedic sketch stretched into a 90-minute feature, thanks to an organized-crime storyline that’s been laid on top to beef things up.

In an attempt to do less harm, and perhaps some good, Renfield has been bringing the abusers of his fellow group members to Dracula to snack on. This lands him in the midst of a war between Teddy Lobo (Ben Schwartz), backed by his intimidating crime boss mom (Shohreh Aghdashloo), and a young upstart cop, Rebecca (Awkwafina), seeking revenge for her father’s death. Things get only more complicated with the addition of a centuries-old all-powerful vampire and Renfield, who develops super fighting strength from eating bugs.

The plot may be flimsy and disposable, but “Renfield” is gleefully gory and goofy, the kind of movie where a charmingly floppy-haired Hoult jumps on an assassin’s head, exploding his body like a blood-filled water balloon, while cheerily waving at his new friend Rebecca. The red stuff doesn’t so much flow as it projects, geyser-like, from dismembered limbs, our hero wielding severed arms like clubs.

That such violence is enacted by our sweetly earnest protagonist just lends to the winking tonal clash, which is reflected in the film’s design. Dracula’s lair is ostentatiously goth and gruesome, decked out with spent blood bags, dripping candles and eerie green lighting, his visage oozing through various stages of transformation as he regains his strength. But when Renfield sets up his own apartment, he goes for brightly painted walls and inspirational posters, eschewing Victorian garb for a multicolored sweater and khakis.

The ironic tone and over-the-top style gives “Renfield” a 1990s throwback feel, like a classic “Tales From the Crypt” installment (i.e., “Demon Knight”). It draws from the entire history of Dracula, including the 125-year-old novel, and performances from the 1930s and 1960s, all refracted through a highly self-aware 2020s point of view with the rapid, fluid action cinematography that nods to contemporary cinematic trends.

The stylish “Renfield” is a bit of frothy fun. It may be too flip for some, but flippancy isn’t the issue — it’s the flimsiness. Hoult and Cage sell the toxic odd-couple dynamic well, but a sturdier story is required to fully support their performances, especially Cage’s operatic Dracula, who delights in terrorizing his foppish familiar. “Renfield” dutifully delivers the goods — and a few therapist-approved lessons about codependent relationships too — but unfortunately, it’s lacking a bit of bite.

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Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

‘Renfield’
Rated: R, for bloody violence, some gore, language throughout and some drug use
Running time: 1 hours, 33 minutes
Playing: Starts April 14 in general release

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